There is a lot of strife within the Church at both the church / denominational and individual member levels. This is due to the fact that we have a bunch of well-meaning, strong believing Christians running around in the Church. This is a good thing because strong (good) beliefs are a necessary (critical) component of excellent (above average) Christian living. As we are instructed in Proverbs 14:4, “Where no oxen are, the trough is clean; but much increase comes by the strength of an ox,” which is to say that contention is the evidence of a productive Church. But just because your barn contains cattle doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be maintained in a clean and orderly fashion. Much of the strife that exists in the Church can (and should) be avoided. We can hold and express our various different beliefs, all without creating needless contention. In this article we will discuss how to productively become a non-contributor to unnecessary strife.
Treating the Symptom
The most popular technique employed by Christians who are trying to negate strife within the body of Christ is non-denominationalism. Proponents of non-denominationalism would have us believe that the chief culprit in the contention expressed within the Church is due to all the different denominations. They claim that if we choose to simply quit identifying as groups, then we will all get along and everything will be hunky-dory. In my humble opinion, non-denominationalism treats the symptom rather than the problem. Denominations are merely a symptom of differing beliefs. You aren’t going to convince everyone in the Church to believe in the same thing. People will always apply themselves to some demographic based upon their beliefs because to do so is basic to all of life. Ironically, non-denominationalism is just another denomination comprised of the group of people who don’t believe in denominations. Contention arises in, and between, non-denominational Churches just as it does anywhere else, which demonstrates that this solution fails to solve the problem. And really, if non-denominationalists truly believe in their solution, they need to stop identifying as Christians because of all the division that could be alleviated between the Christian and non-Christian camps.
Identifying the Real Problem
The problem isn’t that this group over here disagrees with that group over there. Nor is the problem that my strongly held beliefs are in conflict with your strongly held beliefs. The issue is that I have a propensity to become offended with you when you refuse to be persuaded to my beliefs. The issue is also that I have a tendency to belittle you in my mind because your beliefs don’t seem to be as sophisticated as mine. Other times the issue is that the conclusions of your beliefs offend me. Sometimes I’m offended by the amount of passion that you put into defending your beliefs. In moments of extreme pettiness, I can even become offended simply because you mounted an argument in favor of your beliefs, or against my beliefs, that I can’t provide a good answer to. These and many of other similar examples serve to demonstrate the fact that the real cause of Church contention is almost always (99.9 percent of the time) personal pride. Solving belief-based division within the Church is a matter of personal responsibility. You can’t force the problem to be solved by trying to convince everyone else that non-denominationalism is the way to go (good luck with that). The problem can only be solved by each of us taking responsibility for the way we react to others. There are two primary facets to this that we need to understand.
Separating the Idea from the Individual
First of all, we shouldn’t be personally offended at the beliefs of our fellow Christians. I emphasize “personally” because being offended with an idea, and being offended with a person who adheres to that same idea, are two completely different things. As an example, I myself take offense with the beliefs of credo baptism and communion. As a matter of fact, I find them to be highly offensive, and I will articulate my arguments against them with great vigor and passion. Despite this, I work at practicing self-control by choosing not to extend my extreme dislike for credo baptism and communion onto those people who adhere to these beliefs. Actually, this doesn’t really require that much self-control when I remember that proponents of credo communion and baptism are people made in the image of God and are members with me in the kingdom of God. They are therefore deserving of all due respect, grace, and consideration. Additionally, it is wise for us to remember that everyone is at a different point in their Christian walk, many are more advanced than us, and a few are less advanced. We should extend the same grace for the incorrect beliefs of others as we would like to receive in the case our own erroneous beliefs. So after all the arguments have been made and debated thrice over, once the last ironic point of our opponent’s belief has been highlighted, we need to step back, take a breath, and remember that he is a Christians just like you and I, and that ultimately he is on our side. It would be very conducive towards eliminating strife if we took the time to say this out loud to our fellow Christians.
Don’t be a Whiney Baby
If we are truly going to take personal responsibility in solving the issue of inter-Church strife then we can’t limit ourselves to just being careful and considerate about how we treat others. Making sure that we are treating others with respect will only get us so far. Inevitably someone is going to come along who hasn’t heard of the “separate the individual from the idea” concept. And that person is probably going to be very offensive. He will probably ridicule you in very personal ways because of your beliefs. But you know what? That’s ok, because good beliefs are worth being ridiculed for. Your beliefs are going to draw in some flack, and you need to be ready to accept it with cheerful graciousness. Our personal feelings aren’t worth lashing out at people who aren’t as mature in how they debate.
Another area where this applies is in regards to the modern concept of politeness. There are some Christians running around who have got it into their heads that “speaking the truth in love” means that we need to walk around our brothers and sisters in Christ on eggshells. I am by no means promoting this misapplication of the referenced scripture. To the contrary, we are called to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and very often this means calling a spade a spade. Frankly there is an over-abundance of Christians requiring that other Christians adhere to culturally constructed concepts of politeness. As soon as some Christian fails to meet their culturally constructed idea of politeness, they are only too eager to cry foul and start moaning and whining about how their Christians rights to be talked to with sweet caresses and gentleness were violated. When we get out on the public arena we need to be ready to have our ideas picked apart and challenged with sharpness and vigor. To the Christians who promote contention and the “virtue” of being easily offended by claiming that we shouldn’t speak to them too roughly, I retort: Either man-up or shut-up! There are two sides to the problem of strife: the offender’s side and the side of the offended. The problem can be solved from either end to equally good effect.
For myself, being the type of person who doesn’t contribute to strife has been made easier by changing the goals that I have in arguing with my fellow Christians. It used to be that I would enter arguments with the goal of winning the argument. This is a very poor goal, but I think it’s something that many of us naturally fall into as young adults. Now don’t get me wrong, I still strive to win the argument, but over time I’ve learned that it is profitable to shift my goal and expectation just a bit. Rather than working to win arguments I now work to plant seeds. The concept of planting seeds is derived from Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds in Mark chapter four (I’ll assume that most people are familiar with it). I’m not saying that the analogy I’m going to use is exactly what Jesus meant in His parable; rather there is a concept that was taught by His parable that can be usefully applied to the act of engaging in arguments with other people.
There are some arguments that our hearers will readily accept. There are others that our hearers will not accept. This is because everyone is at a different point in their Christian walk, so some will be at a point where they can accept the ideas we are promoting, while others will not be. This is ok because my goal is no longer to win the argument; now my goal is to plant seeds in the mind of the person I’m talking with. These seeds have the opportunity to take root and grow, bringing about new ideas that that can lead to worldview shifts in the minds of people I converse with. I plant good seeds by making thought provoking, well-rounded, logical arguments. Sometimes my ideas take root immediately, and people will agree with me on the spot. Other times I will plant seeds and people won’t agree with me until later. But we don’t need people to be persuaded immediately. Seeds can take months, or even years, to blossom. By taking on this thought process our goals for arguing with people can shift from winning the argument today to positively influencing their worldview throughout the course of their life. Really this is a more realistic way to relate to people because we are all prone towards stubbornness.
There is certainly a good amount of strife that exists within the Church. But conflict is the evidence of diligent work brought about by strong beliefs, and these are good things. Though some amount of conflict is indicative of the vitality within the Church, much of it is unnecessary and should be eliminated. But knee-jerking to the extreme of non-denominationalism isn’t actually solving anything. Instead, the proper solution is to reform the way we relate to people, which ought to be easy in the case of dealing with fellow Christians. Our two-sided approach where we learn to separate the idea from the individual and we practice being thick-skinned, is the best practice for anyone who really cares to reduce beliefs-based conflict. This becomes easy for us to do when we approach conversations with the objective of planting seeds rather than winning arguments. Only by holding ourselves accountable to practice these things, and discipling others to do the same, can we ever hope to rid the Church of unnecessary conflict.